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Fights infections, reduces symptoms of colds and flu, stimulates the immune system and heals minor wounds and burns

Looking at echinacea's reputation through history is like riding a roller coaster. It's up, it's down, it's up again. Before European colonists showed up, the Plains Indians were using this native North American wildflower as a healing herb. The colonists started using it, too, and in the 1870s, a Nebraska doctor popularized it as a "blood purifier" and snakebite remedy. For years most households in this country kept tincture of echinacea (ek-i-NAY-see-uh) on hand as an infection fighter. With the advent of antibiotics, however, the herb fell from favor.

Now, thanks to modern medical science, echinacea is once again receiving favorable attention. Although it's no substitute for antibiotics, this herb holds some promise as an immune system booster after all. In order to reestablish its reputation as a healer, however, this American herb had to do a little traveling. In Germany, extensive research over the past few decades has uncovered a host of infection-fighting properties.

"The herb normalizes the number of white blood cells in the blood and helps them surround and destroy bacteria and viruses," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. It also slows the spread of infection to surrounding tissues and helps flush toxins away from infected areas, he says.

In several studies, injections of concentrated compounds derived from echinacea caused people's immune systems to activate macrophages. These germ-gobbling cells are crucial to beating infection, and they may have anti-tumor activity as well. Echinacea may even play a role in curbing the misery of colds and flu. In one study done in Germany, liquid echinacea extract was shown to help ease the symptoms of influenza and speed recovery.

Applied externally as a poultice to wounds, sores and burns, echinacea may also protect against infection and stimulate tissue repair and healing.

Putting the herb to work

To battle a cold or the flu, take echinacea at the first sign of symptoms, says Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. He recommends taking about a teaspoonful of alcohol-based tincture a day to duplicate the effective dose in the German flu study.

A tea made from echinacea provides a tasty but somewhat less potent alternative. To make a tea, pour boiling water over two to three tablespoons of dried, fresh or powdered herb and steep for five minutes. Sip over a period of 30 to 90 minutes and repeat six to eight hours later. Dr. Tyler warns, however, that the lack of standardization in American herbal products makes it hard to guarantee even an approximate dosage of a particular compound. There have also been reports of echinacea products being adulterated with other herbs. His advice: Purchase herbal products only from well-established, reputable suppliers. Echinacea is generally considered safe, says Dr. Tyler, although an allergic reaction is always a possibility. Discontinue use if you experience any adverse effects.

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